If you know what I’m talking about when I talk about reiki, you likely feel strongly about it. Maybe you describe it as the life-changing saving grace to your chronic back pain, or maybe you’re certain it’s quackery capitalizing on people at their weakest. At least for those moved to write about it on the internet, there’s little middle ground.
For everyone else, a brief explainer: Reiki is a spiritual healing practice which originated in Japan in the early 20th century, and is built on the belief that the body is innately able to heal itself. The word “reiki” loosely translates to “universal life energy” — an energy which practitioners believe exists within, and surrounds, each body — and the practice involves transmitting or balancing that energy, through the specific placement of hands on or above a recipient’s (fully clothed) body. Most commonly, reiki is used to ease pain, anxiety, fatigue, and depression, but since at its core is the conviction that the body in its natural state can heal any ailment, the applications, theoretically, are endless. However, the few, small studies on the practice have yet to yield much evidence of its efficacy (though the research has also found that it doesn’t appear to be harmful).
Six months ago, when I walked into my first reiki appointment at a Santa Fe oxygen spa, I had only ever heard the word in passing, and I didn’t really know what to expect. The spa’s description spoke vaguely about healing and relaxation; I thought I’d paid for a massage. What I got was one of the strangest experiences of my life: an hour in which my practitioner waved his hands over me and blew smoke across my body, to which my body responded with warm tingling in my arms and hands, mysterious pressure on my chest, and uncontrollable tremors in my legs. It was unexpected, a little scary, and definitely not relaxing.
According to my practitioner, these sensations indicated an energy blockage being released; they were merely signs that the session was working. He told me my body was returning to its natural state, i.e. “nearly orgasmic” energy. But it didn’t feel orgasmic. It felt crazy. I tend to be a cautious believer, but even I couldn’t accept this as the cause and effect. I needed to know: what had happened to my body?
What complicates discussion of reiki is that, unlike alternative medicines which have become more integrated into Western medicine such as acupuncture and chiropractic, reiki is unregulated. The result of this is a proliferation of many and varied manifestations of the practice, influenced by different historical traditions and lineages, and often linked by little other than the practitioner’s calling it reiki. This dispersal of technique can be a source of frustration to those who’ve trained in the specific method as developed by the man generally accepted as the founder of modern reiki, Mikao Usui.
So far, the research cautions that reiki should be used in conjunction with, and never instead of, conventional treatments for conditions like pain, anxiety, or depression. But if reiki is to be used with conventional medicine, then there first needs to be clarity around what, precisely, reiki even is. Practitioners going rogue, blending multiple spiritual practices into something new and naming it reiki, muddies the already sparse data. One person who is working toward a singular definition of the practice for patients, practitioners, and medical professionals is Pamela Miles.
Miles, author of Reiki: A Comprehensive Guide, is the unofficial leader of the movement to legitimize reiki in the mainstream. Having practiced and researched reiki for over 31 years, Miles has published in multiple peer-reviewed medical journals, collaborated on NIH-funded medical research, taught reiki at medical schools, and spoken about reiki in the media. Though she doesn’t necessarily advocate for uniform regulation of the practice, she does emphasize the importance of continued research on its effectiveness, and for the education of those receiving it. When I described my experience to Miles over the phone, she wasn’t entirely convinced she’d call what happened “reiki” at all.
“I cannot speak to any particular experience, but the kinds of things you described sound more like an energy medicine, a shamanic approach, where the practitioner was moving the energy, clearing the obstacles.” I was confused. Isn’t that exactly what reiki is?
Ideally not, according to Miles. When practiced according to its origins,